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US military strategy fails when religious liberty is ignored

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 30, 2012

On Memorial Day, appropriately enough, I finished reading a new history of World War II: The Storms of War, by Andrew Roberts. Having examined some of the strategic errors that Hitler made, and traced their consequences, Roberts concludes by reminding his readers that the war could have turned out very differently. With a sound strategic plan, Germany might have prolonged the war, causing even more bloodshed and devastation. And if he had been a truly brilliant strategist, Hitler might have won the war in Europe, leaving the US alone to face an increasingly powerful Nazi war machine.

To think of Europe as a united Nazi empire is truly frightening. It is a reminder, too, that in World War II the issues were unusually clear. Ordinarily the moral questions in warfare are more complicated. Each nation thinks its cause is just, and while historians eventually may choose a favorite, there is often a plausible minority argument for the righteousness of other side. Not so with World War II. Hitler had molded a monstrous regime with even more monstrous ambitions. He had to be stopped. The US and Britain were unquestionably on the right side, morally speaking. (The involvement of the Soviet Union—which was utterly essential to the Allied victory—was far more morally ambiguous.) The likely consequences of a Nazi victory were unthinkable.

There was never any question what victory in Europe would mean for the Allies in World War II: the defeat of Germany and the destruction of the Nazi regime. With a just cause and a clear goal, Americans could—and did, and still do—look upon the soldiers who fought in World War II as heroes. Even now, more than a half-century later, we tend to think first of the World War II veterans when we honor the Americans who have died in battle.

American troops have gone to war several times since those days, but never with the same bright clarity of purpose. We battled to a stalemate in Korea, suffered a humiliating rout in Vietnam, and now are engaged in murky, confusing struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan. We may have identified a dangerous enemy—Communism—in Korea and Vietnam, but as a nation we did not have a clear conception of what victory would entail, or whether we were prepared to pay the costs necessary to achieve it. In Iraq it was easy enough to see Saddam Hussein as the villain, but much more difficult to identify any allies we were anxious to support. In Afghanistan, similarly, we know that we are fighting against the Taliban; but who are we fighting for?

Reflecting on these matters, as I read The Storms of War, I found myself wondering whether the lack of clarity about our military adventures might reflect a deeper problem with American policy-making. Is it possible that we have trouble defining our strategic goals because we are unclear about our own guiding principles? At the conclusion of his book, Andrew Roberts argues that Hitler’s strategic errors were not random; they were products of his warped Nazi ideology. Hitler’s strategic decisions were wrong, in several crucial instances, because his goals were wrong. Using a similar logic, might we conclude that American military strategy would be more successful if we had clear and righteous foreign-policy goals?

The US is committed to a foreign policy that defends human rights. Yet in the countries where our troops have been fighting during the past decade, one fundamental human right—the right to religious freedom—has been diminished rather than enhanced, particularly for Christians. In Iraq the Christian minority is in flight, hounded and intimidated by Islamic extremists. In Pakistan—a nation that was supposedly our ally—the Christian minority is brutally oppressed. In Afghanistan the government that we are defending prohibits our troops from importing religious literature.

In response to the uprisings of the “Arab Spring,” American foreign policy has betrayed the same weakness. In Egypt and again in Syria we have given our backing to rebels who sought to oust a military regime and promote democratic reforms. To be sure the Mubarak and Assad regimes were corrupt and oppressive. But we had reason to be worried, too, about the Islamic forces that were likely to replace them. It is instructive that in both countries, Christian leaders were distinctly unenthusiastic about the prospects of regime change—not because they were cozy with the old governments, but because they were fearful of the alternatives.

Look around the world, to the countries were American troops have fought and died during the past 50 years. Is there one in which religious liberty has been strengthened? If US troops are fighting for freedom, why does religious freedom suffer in each military campaign?

Sound principles lead to sound policies; sound policies produce sound strategies. An American foreign policy founded on human rights cannot be successful unless we are fully committed to all human rights, beginning with religious freedom.

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